East Liberty’s trajectory was altered by three events that defined the month of July 2015. Early on, more than 200 residents of the Penn Plaza apartment complex were served 90-day eviction notices. A couple of weeks later, an emergency meeting was held by city officials and the community to determine what should be done about it. Near month’s end, a seemingly unrelated community meeting took place, as part of a planning process for a proposed development a few blocks away, called Mellon’s Orchard South.

Prior to then, few were talking about Penn Plaza. No one needed to. While affordable rentals were becoming increasingly scarce throughout the area, the mixed-income Penn Plaza complex continued to provide a steady supply, as it had for decades. At that time, Mellon’s Orchard South was merely a parking lot—a clean slate to be reimagined—unrelated to Penn Plaza. But by month’s end, when approximately seventy-five people gathered for the Mellon’s Orchard South meeting, all that changed.

Image of Myrtle Stern and Mabel Duffy standing outside a boarded up daycare center in the former Penn Plaza apartments in East Liberty, Pittsburgh.

Myrtle Stern (left),76, and Mabel Duffy, 78, stand outside a former daycare center on the first floor of Penn Plaza. Service-oriented businesses are dwindling in East Liberty. Photo: Maranie Rae Staab

More than two years after the eviction notices, a press release was issued on October 27, 2017, titled, “City of Pittsburgh Announces Joint Consent Agreement for Penn Plaza and Enright Park Redevelopment in East Liberty,” which finally made clear just how interrelated these events were. The official purpose of the agreement was to release the City and LG Realty, the owner of the Penn Plaza, from months of legal limbo, and to restart redevelopment of the site. But it can be looked at another way—as an embodiment of the many contradictions inherent to both East Liberty and local government’s influence there.

Indeed, these contradictions can be found in varying degrees in other neighborhoods, but East Liberty is the epicenter of this change. Most of the people I talked to for this story see the neighborhood in one of two ways: as either a paragon for urban revitalization, or the product of complete dysfunction. A few provided a more nuanced view: what we are witnessing in East Liberty is less about the neighborhood itself, and more about the collision between far-reaching economic forces and misguided local public policy, perpetuated by a lack of transparency and honest dialogue from the mayor’s office on down to the corner of Penn and Negley Avenues.

For all the efforts to overcome the physical barriers that for decades isolated East Liberty from surrounding communities—by demolishing high-rises, reconnecting streets, and building bridges—this lack of transparency has turned the neighborhood into more of an island than at any point in recent memory.

The mass evictions at Penn Plaza were unquestionably disturbing, and the management of the Mellon’s Orchard South planning process was deeply troubling at best. The consent agreement provided an opportunity to recalibrate the City’s future involvement in East Liberty, but instead yielded what has amounted to yet another real estate development deal. And while that deal may have some spin-off benefits for for those who face the ongoing threat of displacement, the decisions that will be made over the months (or years) to come will happen within the same distrustful arena that prevails now.

“The audience refused to participate.”

This story is not a feel-good call to “talk it out,” but talking is the place to start regardless of how it feels. Besides, the call for it has been made, and continues to be made, by those most severely impacted by redevelopment. That’s not Downstream’s call to make. The role of this publication has never been about problem-solving; its role is to support those who continue to fight for an equitable city. Downstream bears witness and describes neighborhood changes that occur, while providing much of the context that traditional news outlets either leave out or fail to see. Occasionally it offers up a few ideas.

This story is no different. Previous Downstream stories provide much of East Liberty’s backstory (as it pertains to redevelopment) that is too lengthy to retell fully. By combining that history with detailed accounts of recent events, each new development is perceived by many residents as another injustice that is not an isolated event, but part of a pattern of systematic displacement, perpetuated by our city government and many of its partners.

Many say that the amount of public engagement citywide has been diminishing for years. While that is difficult to quantify, more concerning is the nature of it. Who schedules and presides over community processes, where meetings take place, and how decisions are made, are of great importance. This hard-learned lesson did not find a place in the consent agreement. Pittsburgh is about to enter the next chapter of the Penn Plaza saga, seemingly prepared to make the same mistakes it made a few blocks away at Mellon’s Orchard South.

We can’t hear you

The social hall of the East Liberty Presbyterian Church is a marvelous space, but not in July. Subterranean and windowless, industrial-sized fans are needed to move the stifling summer air. Many of those who attended the emergency Penn Plaza meeting gathered again on the night of July 28, 2015, for the Mellon’s Orchard community meeting, where the fans drowned out both their voices and the presenters’. The absence of microphones and the correlating shouts from the audience of “We can’t hear you!” exemplified broader communication problems that have long been the Achilles heel of both local public agencies and East Liberty Development, Inc. (ELDI), the project’s community partner to the City. Choosing being able to hear over comfort, the audience fanned themselves with pamphlets, titled, Black Homes Matter; the same pamphlets used for the same purpose, in the same space, two weeks prior.

At the front of the room were San Francisco-based design consultant, Fu Wilmers, along with City Councilman Ricky Burgess, and representatives from the URA and ELDI. To many people, it wasn’t clear who was in charge of this process. Because it took place in East Liberty, many assumed it to be ELDI, when in was actually the URA, the owners of the Mellon’s Orchard site.

Image of Geary Rivers in his Penn Plaza apartment in East Liberty, Pittsburgh.

Geary Rivers, 70, is a Vietnam Veteran who lived in Penn Plaza for five years before being displaced to the Borough of Wilkinsburg. Photo: Maranie Rae Staab

Robert Rubinstein, the URA’s then acting-executive director, opened the meeting by addressing the pamphlet head-on. He stated that much of the information within was inaccurate, and clarified for the audience the precise boundaries of the proposed development. In other words, people were getting worked up over issues that were outside the scope of the Mellon’s Orchard South project. It was obvious that lines on a map mattered much more to the project team than the audience. Both sides repeatedly returned to this unreconcilable difference during the next hour.

As the second of three community meetings, “Community Design Day” was intended to be a participatory event. With markers, maps and multi-colored dots, the audience would get in touch with their inner-architect selves by drawing houses, trees, the paths they take from here to there, and so on. When fiery exchanges about how the process had been handled thus far—described by audience members as “egregious” and “repressive”—did not subside, the project team tried to reassure the crowd that they were “hearing what was said,” appropriately writing it down on a flip chart. The team suggested that the room move on with the design exercise, and that’s when things got even more interesting.

The audience refused to participate. They wanted to keep the discussion focused right where it was—on communication.

Consent

A moving van loaded with the belongings of Penn Plaza’s last tenants departed from the building’s parking lot at 4 p.m. on March 31, 2017. Two rainy hours later, the trucks had been emptied into a yellow brick apartment building three blocks away, called Mellon’s Orchard (North). What may have marked the bitter end to a tenant relocation effort that began nearly two years before, did not mark the end of Penn Plaza.

Even the subsequent demolition of Penn Plaza did not mark the end of Penn Plaza. Still pending was the City’s lawsuit against the building’s owner, LG Realty Advisors, which claimed that LG initiated interior demolition while residents lived there. Also pending was LG’s suit against the City, which claimed that the planning commission mishandled its ruling that denied LG the right to develop luxury apartments atop a Whole Foods megastore on the Penn Plaza site, citing $10 million in damages. And last but not least, former Penn Plaza residents, now scattered across the city and beyond, continued to meet every Monday with the Penn Plaza Support and Action group, to strategize their eventual return to the site from which they were displaced.

For six months, as summer turned to fall, the eerie silence that lingered over Grant Street regarding the future of the Penn Plaza site finally ended with the October press release, announcing that a consent agreement had been signed. And what did it have to say about all that interior demolition and the misdeeds of our project-killing government?

Water under the bridge!

It did say a whole lot of other consequential things. If you want the short version, check out the Tribune-Review and WESA. If you want something more (with no advertisements or required subscriptions, ahem), continue on.

“Community meetings are all too often an exercise in feeding a milk bone to a coyote that’s busy licking bloody chicken feathers from its jowls.”

At a glance, there are some good things in this announcement. If fulfilled, a localized affordable housing trust fund (nimbly named the East End Regenerative Housing Account (which is separate from the citywide Housing Opportunity Fund)), will facilitate the creation of approximately 200 affordable units within one mile of the former Penn Plaza site. The agreement also includes improvements to nearby Enright Park, a workforce development strategy, and a “robust” public process.

Not bad so far.

Upon my second read, I felt sensations that are all too familiar; perhaps you know them: your eyeball being stabbed from behind; shallow breathing; audible bowels. These symptoms were not caused by the typo halfway down—”Pennl [sic] Plaza”—but from scanning for, but not finding, the name of the person or entity that represented the displaced people of Penn Plaza during these negotiations. (An oddity, it seemed, considering that various nearby residents and community groups had entered into the legal battle as “Intervenors.”) These symptoms were further inflamed by rereading the number of affordable units that would be built on the former Penn Plaza site: zero; and by reexamining the neighborhoods “within one mile” that would accommodate this new housing, and not finding Friendship, Bloomfield, Highland Park, Shadyside, or the make-believe Eastside.

Admittedly, these were my immediate reactions; since then I’ve been provided with explanations that, while satisfactory in the cognitive sense, have done little to dispel my doubts that city hall is capable of bringing justice to the tragedy that Penn Plaza became. Penn Plaza provided not-to-be-missed opportunities for our city: to match rhetoric with action, to get off the dime with respect to affordable housing citywide, to ensure that this doesn’t happen again. But while the press release offers a self-congratulatory job-well-done, its greatest accomplishment is putting in plain sight how little has changed since this crisis began.

While I’ll hope to shed some light on those matters, it was the seventh and final bullet point of the press release that brought on the vertigo: A robust public process will precede plan approval, including two community meetings and review by the City Planning Commission and other appropriate bodies.

Two?

Let’s start there.

Community Process (especially the robust kind)

I could tell you some stories. There was a time not long ago when three public meetings were needed to plan for a Welcome to [insert neighborhood here] sign. But now that I’ve been around long enough to start sentences with “In those times…”

In those times, when Pittsburgh’s real estate market was colder than a can of I.C. Light at a Steelers tailgate, community engagement primarily served the planning needs of Pittsburgh neighborhoods. The resulting plans (messy as they were) articulated a community’s vision for its future, and sought to attract investment that was consistent with the plan’s underlying core principles and goals. In short, community planning was proactive and driven by consensus, not consent.

“We speak of urban renewal as a historical event that better minds have sealed away in some sort of urban planning sarcophagus.”

The results were indeed mixed. Some projects sat “collecting dust on a shelf,” but others were implemented in a grass-roots, collaborative manner that brought about a shared sense of accomplishment. Near Penn Plaza, such projects included community space (Union Project), supportive and affordable housing (Sojourner MOMS, Rippey Street Habitat for Humanity houses, and New Pennley Place), and social events (Penn Avenue Arts Initiative, which at one time was as much about basketball tournaments as it was arts programming). Even the projects that never got off the ground provided vital community engagement opportunities.

A series of events during the mid-2000s changed all of that. Investment increasingly came in the form of high dollar corporate outfits enticed by juicy subsidies and profit potential, and the lengths to which the City and its partners (including some community groups) would go to land a deal became reckless. Though it occurred throughout the city, it was felt most acutely in East Liberty, which was under something like a public-private missile attack. Nearly one thousand people were displaced from three high-rises, and by the time roughly 400 units of replacement housing called Fairfield were built, the URA had lost track of where many of the displaced residents went.

Framed photo of Frederick Douglas left behind in vacated Penn Plaza apartment in East Liberty, Pittsburgh

A resident’s belongings left behind in a vacant Penn Plaza apartment: a portrait of Frederick Douglas atop another painting, titled, “The First Supper.” Photo: Downstream.

Commercially, Whole Foods, Starbucks, Target, Bakery Square (Google); and residentially, the Highland Building, Bakery Square 2.0, and ELDI’s acquisition and transfer of many properties to house flippers, brought about the modern day equivalent of shell-shock for those who still thought of East Liberty as home. And while this torment was voiced—repeatedly—redevelopment not only accelerated, but crept in from the edges of the neighborhood to its core. Each new project was celebrated as another piece of the revitalization puzzle, underscored with rhetoric about the amounts of affordable housing that was built by ELDI and others. Pie charts and development-friendly media reports reinforced this message over what many in the community as systematic displacement. And while the Black Homes Matter pamphlet, the East of Liberty documentary film, and publications like this one, challenged that message, the obvious need for open, honest dialogue about housing went unfulfilled.

Whether it’s the product of cognitive dissonance or denial, a troublesome narrative has emerged that is often reified by government agencies, community groups, philanthropies, and others: that today’s redevelopment practices are wholly distinguishable from the wicked days of urban renewal. Too often we speak of urban renewal as a historical event that better minds have sealed away in some sort of urban planning sarcophagus. Its legacy is almost always defined by displacement, destruction, and exclusion, leaving out two other important factors: the speed with which it happened, and the central role of public agencies and public dollars.

East Liberty was first torn apart and rebuilt in only six years with massive amounts of federal spending. Because what we see in East Liberty today has been unfolding for twenty years with greater amounts of private investment and lesser public subsidy, we don’t call it urban renewal—we call it community development, and rarely mention how similar those terms are, in practice and on paper. And while communities are engaged more now than during the urban renewal era, the argument that it’s not enough is evidenced by high levels of distress and distrust in many Pittsburgh neighborhoods.

In these times, when the city’s real estate market is hotter than a can of I.C. Light at a Pirates tailgate, development has been gravitating from publicly owned (or at least community controlled) land towards privately financed projects on privately owned land. Because development impacts the public domain regardless of who owns the land, and because there is often some form of public subsidy attached, many (but not all) communities retain some ability to influence these projects.

That influence is weakening, as this kind of public engagement is increasing reactionary, typically serving site-specific, fait accompli projects. A bubble is drawn around the project site, and what’s within it is up for discussion; anything outside of it is not. The broader consensus-based planning efforts we now often skip were once a crucial step in stabilizing our topsy-turvy neighborhoods, and the consent-based results are self-evident. These days community meetings are all too often an exercise in feeding a milk bone to a coyote that’s busy licking bloody chicken feathers from its jowls. But hey, that’s just my opinion.

Many of those who crafted the Penn Plaza consent agreement point out that because the site is privately owned, local stakeholders and city government alike have little leverage towards bringing about a satisfactory outcome for all involved, especially displaced residents. But private ownership does not invalidate comparisons to the publicly owned Mellon’s Orchard South. The most consequential misstep made by the URA and the Mellon’s Orchard project team was being entirely unprepared for the outrage surrounding the Penn Plaza evictions that the community brought to the meeting. A second error was asking the community to set that anger aside and focus on the agenda.

ELDI told me that they will not be facilitating the public process for the Penn Plaza site. The consent agreement does not stipulate who will, but a good guess would be the Department of City Planning, possibly in conjunction with LG Realty’s development team. Because housing distress has only increased, and because those in need of affordable housing still struggle to find venues to voice their concerns, one thing is certain: the public will bring a lot more to this meeting than mere curiosity, and if the lessons of Mellon’s Orchard have not been learned, the process is bound to implode.

Perhaps it’s time to lighten this up a bit.

As in the consent agreement, when the word “robust” precedes “public process” (almost always), it for me has the opposite of the intended effect, making me suspicious rather than assured. My feelings toward public processes being robust are very similar to Colonel Jessep’s feelings about danger being grave in A Few Good Men, as seen in his exciting exchange with Lieutenant Kaffee:

Col. Jessep: I felt his life might be in danger…
Lt. Kaffee: Grave danger?
Col. Jessep: Is there another kind?

But it turns out that there is another kind—public process that’s robust in name only. Unless something changes, we can only hope the “robust” (two meeting) public process described in the consent agreement has the precise kind of robustness that the planning commission said was lacking when it voted down LG’s $150 million scheme in February. Or, instead of hoping, we can return to Mellon’s Orchard South as a harbinger of things to come. Its public process was also billed as robust, and the public notices advertising it read as follows:

The course has been set…
There is no turning back…
Prepare your weapons…. (Weapons?)
Give me the map.
Give me a kiss first. (Wait, what?)
Summon your courage…
Get ready…The race is on!

My mistake. That was from the trailer for Cutthroat Island, the highly anticipated 1995 swashbuckling adventure movie starring Gena Davis and Matthew Modine. Regarded today as the biggest Hollywood flop of all time, I sometimes get it confused with the Mellon’s Orchard South planning process.

You can’t hear us
Back at the church, the audience did not relinquish the forum to make its voices heard. Citing noisy fans, no microphones, improper notification, and that by not providing childcare, many families were unable to attend, they said that the process was illegitimate. Several people conveyed that whatever trust may have once existed between them and those at the front of the room had been broken. “We didn’t have real input on Bakery Square or Reizenstein, so why should we trust you now?” one woman said.

City Councilman Ricky Burgess stated that he would be “hostile to any proposal that didn’t include affordable housing,” to which one resident replied, “But how much affordable housing have you added in the past two years?” Others in the audience specifically asked for the creation of a regularly scheduled forum for the community to have these kinds of discussions with the URA, prior to bringing a developer on board.

The literal, pragmatic calls of, “We can’t hear you!” turned to equally literal, but more troubling calls of, “You’re not listening to us!”

A handful of professionals at the front of a room weathering a barrage of needling rebukes is nothing new, but their attempts at maintaining a folksy we’re all on the same team repartee created an atmosphere that was odd and tone-deaf. For some, watching a community rise up against powers that be may have been seen as positive takeaway, yet it was far from clear what the effect would be.

Near one of the exits stood a group of teens from a neighborhood basketball league that played on the courts across the street from the Mellon’s Orchard South site. A young man stepped forward to express how an upscale development would be a threat to their continued enjoyment of the courts. While some may file such worries in the cross that bridge when you come to it drawer, local residents were fully aware of how quickly the nearby Shadow Lounge closed after the long-vacant-turned-renovated Highland Building was leased up by the well-to-do.

The response from the project team to the boys’ concerns was all too predictable. They pointed to lines on maps, and said (paraphrasing), “This is the Mellon’s Orchard South project boundary…the courts are over here.” Generally speaking, these are people I’ve worked with and respect, but the point at which my head falls is when a paid professional tells a boy holding a basketball where the courts are.

ELDI’s longtime Executive Director Maelene Myers had been silent up until now.

Consent (Dis)agreement

The more I looked into the Penn Plaza consent agreement, the more confused I became. In trying to explain it, I wrote myself into a knot; the harder I tried, the tighter it got. So then I did what all great journalists do. I interviewed myself.

Following is the first part of that interview, which took place on Downstream’s couch.

Downstream: Thank you for agreeing to this interview.

Downstream: Happy to be here.

Downstream: Before we get started, is it correct that Downstream is supported entirely through donations?

Downstream: Yes, that’s right. Readers who value stories like these can donate as little as a few dollars.

Downstream: How’s that working out?

Downstream: Well, it seems like money flows more readily to those who always cheer for the winning team.

Downstream: Can you tell readers generally what the consent agreement says?

Downstream: Generally, it says that the pending lawsuits between the City and LG Realty are no longer pending. Those two parties, along with a number of “Intervenors,” have agreed to allow LG to submit a new development proposal, which is likely to be commercial-only. The $10 million in tax breaks that LG is entitled to will be split evenly—LG will use half of it for infrastructure, and the other half will go towards affordable housing and Enright Park. LG’s development requires a “robust” public process and approval by the “appropriate governing bodies,” all of which will happen on an expedited schedule.

Downstream: You mentioned earlier that displaced Penn Plaza residents were not included in these negotiations, but other community groups were. What gives?

Downstream: That’s a great question. The primary legal dispute was between the LG Realty and the City of Pittsburgh. Only the judge, a fellow by the name of James, can grant other people or groups legal standing in the case. Neighbors adjacent to the site argued that they would be impacted by the development, and had the legal right to defend the planning commission’s earlier ruling. Furthermore, these residents are members of community groups located in East Liberty and surrounding neighborhoods; together, they argued that they should all be allowed to provide testimony as a coalition. Judge James agreed and they were all granted “Intervenor” status. As for the former Penn Plaza residents, I don’t know why they weren’t included in the process. Put simply, any entity that wanted to be included had file court documents requesting Intervenor status, and demonstrate the impact that the development would have on it/them. Also worth noting is that no one knew this process would go into “mediation” at the time that the participants were determined.

Downstream: Why didn’t anyone hear a peep about this for several months?

Downstream: The judge imposed a gag order on all of the participants. The Intervenors were prohibited from even discussing it with their membership or boards of directors.

Mabel Duffy left her new address for the Penn Plaza management office. She needed her refunded security deposit to pay her first month’s rent at her new apartment building in the Borough of Verona. Photo: Maranie Rae Staab

Downstream: Do these community groups add any value here or are they just going to gum up the works?

Downstream: At the swift pace that this will unfold, gumming up the works may not be a bad thing, but it depends on which group you’re talking about and who you ask. There are lots of opinions out there, a lot of distrust, and each group has its own unique history with their communities. One immediate benefit of the coalition’s involvement has been to get the public subsidies for the housing fund up front, instead of waiting for years for the Transit Revitalization Incentive District (TRID) monies to materialize.

Downstream: What the hell does that mean?

Downstream: Penn Plaza is within a TRID, a geographically defined area where public subsidy is provided to spur development near transit nodes. Normally, outside of a tax incentive district, once a property is developed, the owners are taxed based on the higher assessed value of the improved property. TRID’s allow owners to continue paying the lower taxes they previously paid on the unimproved property for a period of time. In this case, the tax breaks are projected to be $10 million, half of which will go into a fund for housing and Enright Park. Normally, the tax benefit wouldn’t be available until many years later, but the agreement states that a bond may be issued that would make the $5 million available up front.

Downstream: You also mentioned that new affordable housing units will be built because of this agreement. That’s good, right?

Downstream: Sort of. Four sites have already been identified for new affordable housing in the neighborhoods of East Liberty and Garfield, with additional possibilities in Larimer. One concern is that these units won’t be affordable for former Penn Plaza residents or anyone far below the median income (discussed further in Part Two). Another concern is that two of these projects were already on the books before the legal case began.

Downstream: Wait a minute. Are you suggesting that these projects were going to happen regardless of this agreement, but are now being counted as replacement housing for Penn Plaza?

Downstream: Mellon’s Orchard South and the former synagogue on North Negley had already been submitted as applications to the Pennsylvania Housing and Finance Agency for Low Income Housing Tax Credits (LIHTC) earlier in the year. LIHTC funds cover about 90% of total development costs, so it’s fair to say that if LIHTC were awarded to these projects, they would have delivered 87 affordable units eventually, independent of this agreement. To be fair, there will be a funding gap for those projects even with the LIHTC money, so the local housing trust fund that will be set up can fill the gap and get these projects moving much sooner. There’s a legitimate argument that because these LIHTC projects were already teed up, it makes sense to focus energy there. One of the Intervenors told me that there is need to keep public pressure on the City to ensure that 200 units is not the end goal, but that the housing fund is replenished and able to produce affordable units into the distant future. Support from the foundation community will be needed to create this kind of revolving fund.

Downstream: Does tying these projects to this consent agreement increase their chances of being funded?

Downstream: We need to keep in mind that these projects are competing against other affordable housing projects, locally and across the state. Locally, the two I mentioned are competing against four others in the Hill District, Lawrenceville, and the Northside. If the past is precedent, Pittsburgh will be awarded four LIHTC deals, which means two of these projects probably won’t get funded in the 2017-18 cycle.

Downstream: Why didn’t you like Cutthroat Island? I thought it was pretty good.

Downstream fled the interview, but we caught up with him later…  Check back for the conclusion to this exciting cliffhanger! Or better yet, sign up for email alerts or follow Downstream.  Part Two of Cutthroat Island has now been posted here.

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